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Al-Qaeda deadline for French hostage expires Saturday

By Serge Daniel (AFP)

BAMAKO — An ultimatum set by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for the execution of a French hostage expires Saturday, but Mali authorities remain optimistic that he will be released.

Frenchman Pierre Camatte is among six Europeans kidnapped by AQIM in west Africa's southern Sahara and currently being held in the northern Mali desert.

"We have not lost hope at all to assist in the release of all, I say all of the hostages," a Malian authority told AFP of the case, which is being closely followed by France, which has twice sent its foreign minister to Bamako.

"But I ask everyone to observe the required discretion on this subject," the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Camatte was snatched at the end of November in Mali, and is being held with three Spanish hostages captured in Mauritania in November and an Italian couple kidnapped on December 17, also in Mauritania.

The kidnappers have demanded the release of Islamists imprisoned in Mali in exchange for Camatte and Italian Sergio Cicala.

On January 30, AQIM announced a "final ultimatum" for Camatte, extending a previous deadline to February 20, threatening to kill him if their demands are not met.

In addition, the group has given the Italian government until March 1 to respond to demands concerning hostage Sergio Cicala.

These threats are being taken very seriously after the death of British tourist Edwin Dyer in June 2009, killed by AQIM after six months in captivity after London refused to yield to blackmail by the Islamist combatants.

Despite pressure from Paris, Mali has ruled out releasing the prisoners, numbering at least four, but Malian negotiators met the kidnappers on Friday.

"I cannot say more, I hope we will have good news," one of the two principal negotiators told AFP by satellite phone.

On February 1 and 13, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner paid surprise visits to Bamako in connection with the case. During his second visit he was accompanied by the presidential secretary-general Claude Gueant.

On January 12, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini arrived in Bamako and held a meeting with Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Meanwhile Spain has sent several messages to the capital, saying it is counting on "the top Malian authorities" to secure the freedom of its citizens, according to a diplomatic source.

A short video from northern Mali, seen by an AFP correspondent, recently provided "evidence" that the Spanish hostages were still alive, a Malian negotiator said on February 11.

Toure has said that "Above all, we must not be pessimistic. I call on the whole world to be optimistic. We wish this with all our heart. We wish that all will go well for them (the hostages)."

Camatte, 61, was kidnapped in the middle of the night in a hotel in Menaka in the north-eastern desert of Mali.

The Maghreb branch of Al-Qaeda has increasingly targeted France and its citizens in recent years in the Sahel.

At the end of December 2007, four French tourists were assassinated in the south of Mauritania and in August 2009 two French policemen were injured in a suicide bombing by a Mauritanian close to the French embassy in Nouakchott.

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